Berkeley Rep Grapples with Social Tensions

Photo: 'In the Wake' traverses the line between situational comedy and social realist drama through its protagonist played by Heidi Schreck.
Ryan Ballard/Photo
'In the Wake' traverses the line between situational comedy and social realist drama through its protagonist played by Heidi Schreck.

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Gwen Reviews Berkeley Rep's "In The Wake"
Gwen Reviews Berkeley Rep's "In The Wake.&quo...

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Here in Berkeley, most of us want to believe that we are socially conscious, politically engaged beings. Above all, the culture here promotes tolerance of others' beliefs and lifestyle choices. Berkeley Rep's current production of Lisa Kron's "In the Wake" asks its audience to question just how far their open-minded self-awareness extends.

The show's protagonist, Ellen (Heidi Schreck), represents the ideal left-wing citizen: she's independent, politically active and suspicious of heteronormative relationship structures. She has great friends and a loving relationship with a man she does not feel the need to marry. It seems that she's a woman who has it all figured out.

The group scenes in the first act, played in Ellen's living room, are reminiscent of the beloved comedy of sitcoms like "Friends", and are of a comparable caliber. The beginning scenes of the play are a bit brittle. The material is light and clever, trafficking primarily in the kind of witty banter which is easy to watch and easy to forget. However, things are just getting warmed up.

Under Leigh Silverman's direction, the play starts out ready to become a biting critique of the hollowness of modern liberalism. Set amidst the leftist angst of the Bush years, the cleverly constructed plot works to show the ways in which Ellen's smug self-assurance hides an enormous blind spot about the way her life and the world actually work. Ellen's character functions as an allegory for the American mindset. Despite all her apparent unorthodoxy, she remains fundamentally invested in the belief that the world is fair and that the system works for everyone.

Throughout the show, media images of the Bush years project across the stage, emphasizing the correlation between Ellen's refusal to see the impact of her actions, and the way in which the government has systematically failed so many of its citizens. This aesthetic choice may be a little on the nose, but the effect is certainly powerful.

The second act openly challenges this complacency and delivers the real dramatic oomph of the play. Ellen finds herself unexpectedly falling for a woman, forcing her to reexamine her relationship with her boyfriend Danny (Carson Elrod).

The scenes between Ellen and her lover Amy are exceptionally moving and intense. Actors Heidi Schreck and Emily Donahoe make the encounters both utterly believable and incredibly touching. The honesty and depth of their performances catch up the entire audience in their need for each other. These duet scenes are some of the most memorable in the play.

The meditative quality of this show is extremely compelling. The play proves to be something much deeper than simple social critique. Occasionally there are moments when the intimate acting style does not translate out into the audience. However, for the most part, it's an extremely engaging and moving performance. The play pulls off the astonishing feat of making a profound point without making the audience feel as though they're being lectured.

Particularly in the second act, Lisa Kron's dialogue is beautifully crafted. There is a rawness to this play to which one cannot help but relate.

Ellen's relationship drama functions as an invitation to examine the impact of our actions on the wider world. This play suggests that despite all our certainty that we know ourselves, our desires and our beliefs, the real measure of our lives lies "in the wake" we leave behind us. What have we done? Whom have we hurt?


Challenge heteronormativity with Gwen at [email protected]

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